Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Parsha - Shemot

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Today we begin the book of Exodus, which describes the Israelites' passage from the bondage of Egypt to the religious freedom of the Sinai desert that enabled them to receive the Torah, and construct the tabernacle. Every year at Pesach we give thanks to G-d for bringing us out of slavery. Why should we give thanks to G-d for saving us when it was He who brought exile upon us in the first place?
The Egyptian exile is the answer to Avraham's question.
G-d said to Avraham, "I am G-d Who brought you out of Ur Kasdim to give you this land to inherit it." Avraham replied, "My L-rd, How shall I know that I am to inherit it?" And G-d said to Avraham, "Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own..." (Genesis 15; 7 - 14).
We see from here that the promise that the Jews would inherit the Land of Israel is dependent on their having been slaves in a foreign land first.
The harsh bondage was intended to kill off the Jews. The irony of the slavery was that it achieved the exact opposite of what Pharaoh planned, "But as much as they would afflict them, so they would increase and spread out" (Exodus 1; 11). The slavery made the Jews so populous, leading to the exponential growth of the nation from 70 souls to millions in only three generations. The only tribe to remain comparatively small in number was the tribe of Levi, who we know from tradition were the only tribe not subject to slavery.
In the same way that the Egyptian exile created the nation numerically, it also led to a national consciousness and identity. Only through slavery were the Israelites able to appreciate the freedom that the Torah offered them, only through having first been slaves to Pharaoh were they able to subsequently subjugate themselves to become servants of G-d.
It also created the nation spiritually. The Talmud tells is that there are three things which were only acquired through suffering, Torah, the Land of Israel and the World to Come (Berachot 5a). Elsewhere (ibid. 8a) the Talmud tells us that affliction cleans away sin. The simple explanation of this is that as long as a person is involved in seeking physical comforts it is very difficult for them to elevate themselves to a point where they can appreciate the spiritual dimensions of life. However, when the Jews were in slavery they had all material comforts removed from them, leading to their search for G-d. This is the meaning of the verses, "The Children of Israel groaned because of the work, and they cried out. Their outcry because of the work went up to G-d and G-d remembered His covenant with Avraham..." (ibid. 2; 23 - 4). Only through this were the Jews able to appreciate and recognise the ultimate redemption from Egypt, and the revelation of G-d's presence then, and at Mount Sinai. The suffering which breaks the body allows the soul to be set free, and search for G-d.
However, afflicting the body to allow the inner spark of spirituality to shine through only works when there is an inner spark of goodness bound and confined within that body. Avraham's total faith created an inner quest for spirituality amongst his descendants. Without that, suffering and exile would be meaningless. This was G-d's answer to "How will I know?" - the exile is proof of an inner spark of sanctity which will guarantee the inheritance of the Land of Israel.
We can contrast this with Esav and his descendants, who were never persecuted or exiled. Rashi (to ibid. 36; 7) explains that Esav left the Land of Israel in order to avoid the obligation of slavery in a foreign land. By renouncing his rights to Israel, he also avoided suffering for his children. Ya'akov understood that the promise of the Land of Israel, and the eternal closeness to G-d which that brings, outweighed the temporary suffering of the Egyptian slavery. Esav, who was concerned only with material possessions saw no point in immediate suffering for what could only be a long term gain.
Only through the crucible of Egypt could they emerge as a nation able to receive G-d's promised rewards.

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